Updated: Feb 8, 2020
In November 2008, a group of armed gunmen targeted Mumbai, India, attacking twelve locations and killing more than 160 people. They ended their assault by entering the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and methodically hunting every guest and employee. This horrifying true story is retold in the drama Hotel Mumbai, one of the more difficult viewing experiences I have had in recent memory. It is a skillfully made, suspenseful and harrowing movie, focusing on several of the people trapped in the hotel. It also makes an honest attempt to explore the motivations of the Islamic terrorists. It is pretty successful at accomplishing what it sets out to do. Though I could not help but wonder why it needed to be done.
Hotel Mumbai (115 minutes without the end credits) looks at what happened at the hotel that day with so much detail it borders on exploitation. I do not think that was the intention. This is not meant to be a popcorn movie. Director/co-writer Anthony Maras truly does seem to care about the victims and survivors. This is not a cheap thriller. It is a very well-made movie that does not blink in the face of terrible events. However, I am unsure what point is to be taken from it. It shows the damage hate and propaganda can do in the minds of the devoted, but the idea seems to be to look at what went down, not comment on it. While that is commendable, it makes for a hard watch.
Maras assembles a large, diverse, cast of characters, ala a disaster movie. There is Arjun, a Sikh who works in one of the hotel’s restaurants. He is working hard to earn money to support his family. Oberoi is the chef who takes great pride in his kitchen and is very loyal to the guests. Then there is Zahra, who is a prized guest due to her wealthy mother. She is there with her American husband, their baby and their nanny. The other character who gets some development is Vasili an obnoxious Russian who may be slightly more honorable than he initially appears. A few others get their moment to shine, including the bad guys, but those are the six Maras keeps coming back to. He introduces issues of class, religion and nationality but, because he is observing mostly without judgment, those are typically addressed only indirectly.
The actors bring real emotion to their roles. Dev Patel is brave and focused as Arjun. Fear he will never see his family again is what drives him. Armie Hammer is somewhat limited playing the “heroic American” David, though it is clear the power in their marriage comes from Nazanin Boniadi’s Zahra. She is the most complex character in a story more about what than who.
Credit to Maras for not trying to make Hotel Mumbai exciting or flashy. Yes, there is action, but it is centered on scared people running for their lives. There is no cool, choreographed violence, only brutal executions. It is probably the correct approach. Do not sensationalize it; just show it like it occurred. That is also what makes this such a challenge. I admire the filmmaking ability, yet I did not enjoy watching it. I cannot recommend it, though I cannot easily dismiss it either. This is a technically good movie I kind of wish I had not seen.
2¾ out of 5
Dev Patel as Arjun
Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra
Armie Hammer as David
Anupam Kher as Oberoi
Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Sally
Jason Isaacs as Vasili
Directed by Anthony Maras
Written by John Collee and Anthony Maras